Posted by David Kalat on January 11, 2014
Jack Conway’s 1929 romance Our Modern Maidens climaxes with a wedding. Of course it does—it’s a romance, isn’t it? But there’s something decidedly off about this wedding—indeed the entire film seems to strike a strange note. It could be argued that the film’s fundamental weirdness is a consequence of its star, Joan Crawford.
In connection with TCM’s tribute to the films of Joan Crawford, this transitional late-period silent romantic comedy was screened already. Normally I try to write about movies before they air, but I had Arbuckle on the brain last weekend. Now, by “transitional” I mean it was a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack consisting of music and sound effects but not voices. But it’s also transitional in the sense that it is probably best understood as a “Pre-Code” film, for its sexual content—but we’ll get there.
Joan Crawford was not known for her work in comedies. With her fierce eyes and controlled demeanor, she was better suited to dramas and suspense thrillers, but that didn’t stop her from trying. Our Modern Maidens is a case in point of why Crawford was an unlikely comedy star—the film is almost unrecognizable as a comedy, thanks in large measure to her grim, determined performance. There is one stray moment of fleeting abandon when she cuts loose with a wild dance number while wearing practically nothing—but for much of the picture she is playing it straight (you might recall that Ida Lupino made the same choice to play her scenes straight, despite being cast in a Jack Benny anything-but-the-kitchen-sink vaudeville extravaganza called Artists and Models).
The dominant form of Hollywood romances during the heyday of Crawford’s career in the 1930s and 40s were screwball comedies. The basic recipe for a screwball comedy was this: start with a female lead, and two men. The dramatic tension, the comedy, and the romance all arise out of the different life choices represented by these two men.
In one corner, you have the potential mate who ticks all the boxes. He’s what I call “the right wrong man.” As I wrote here some time ago, Ralph Bellamy made a stock in trade playing these kinds of characters—safe, dependable, decent men. It’s easy to itemize the ways in which this man would be the right man for the leading lady: he is from the right social and economic caste, he is approved of by her folks, they’ve been an item since childhood, or he represents financial status and comfort. Or some combination of those factors.
The problem is, true love isn’t then product of cold calculations. The heart wants what the heart wants, and so enter the irrational choice—“the wrong right man.”
He is the polar opposite of the right wrong man—he’s unruly and boorish, he’s poor, his values are individualistic, he’s not at all what the woman or her family planned. And indeed he’s so obviously wrong that for most of the film they clash in hostile combat. That combat, however, teaches them more about one another than anyone else in the world knows. The fighting is its own form of intimacy, and leads inevitably to affection, and then to love.
And theirs is the “right” pairing—not for any rational reason, mind you. The rational reasons to marry someone are the ones that link her to the wrong man—in other words, these films define true love and romance in fundamentally illogical, irrational terms. It is something to be felt, not calculated.
And if there’s one thing Joan Crawford was not, it’s illogical. From the very start, she was the definition of self-possession, and her career is a case study in control.
In her earliest screen appearances, she was ill-used. Take for example her role as Harry Langdon’s love interest in Tramp Tramp Tramp. She barely appears in the movie, and has no characterization to speak of. She’s just a pretty face—and reportedly she was all but unable to keep a straight face during her scenes with Langdon. The producers of Tramp Tramp Tramp would have been better off casting any pretty wanna-be starlet who either had no sense of humor or bad eyesight and therefore could stand stock still and look gorgeous while Harry Langdon mooned about her—Crawford didn’t fit the bill. This didn’t use her talent well—so why wait for producers to figure out how to use her?
She took her career development into her own hands. Thanks to her own relentless self-promotion she pushed her way to the forefront of Hollywood actresses. She would come to be best remembered for roles as hard-bitten careerists—like Mildred Pierce, or to be honest Mommy Dearest, a film which didn’t even include her at all, just Faye Dunaway doing a cruel Crawford caricature. But these images stick because there was just enough truth to them—behind Crawford’s legendary eyes is a core of steel.
The film that launched Crawford as a star was 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters. She had maneuvered herself into the lead role in a film about the drifting wayward morals of today’s youths—and in which she was put forth as the definitive example of the American flapper.
It was a substantial hit, and so the production team reunited the following year for Our Modern Maidens—not a sequel, but a similar film in the same general vein.
Crawford plays Billie, a free-spirited flapper who is engaged to her childhood sweetheart Gil (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) but is keen to keep their engagement a secret for the time being. She has a plan to engineer a plum job for Gil, and then they can make their love public and get married, once he has the social and financial status Billie thinks she can work up for him.
The thing is, her plan involves throwing herself at influential politico Glenn Abbott (Rod La Rocque), nicknamed “Dynamite” for his womanizing ways. Billie is literally playing with Dynamite as she tries to seduce him into giving Gil a prominent appointment—all the while sending Glenn an unmistakable set of signals that she doesn’t genuinely mean. When Glenn gets her alone in his cabin, he has certain sexual expectations of her that she rejects. “What’s the matter?” he crows, “I thought you were a modern!”
Meanwhile, in her zeal to attend all of her energies on Glenn, Billie has systematically rejected Gil and all but thrown him into the arms of her friend Kentucky (Anita Page). And they’ve grown quite fond of one another…
Which brings us to the wedding, which is where this story started up at the top of the page. Billie and Gil are going to be married—and the whole vibe is wrong. The entire film has been about developing an alternate set of pairings—Billie and Glenn, Gil and Kentucky. Glenn is fuming at Billie’s betrayal of him, and, well, you see, Kentucky is pregnant with Gil’s child. For Billie and Gil to go off into the sunset in each other’s arms is going to leave a ruined battlefield of casualties.
The logic of the romantic comedy template tells us that she should break up with the “safe” choice in favor of the “wrong” man—but those demarcations have gotten seriously confused.
Billie sought out Glenn for entirely calculated, selfish reasons. He was targeted because of his social status and influence—these are the markers of the safe choice. But at the same time, he has come to see her manipulative, deceitful nature better than anyone else, and in that sense he’s a far better match for her than Gil.
And so this is the finale the film opts for—Billie chooses Glenn after all, and lets her childhood sweetie marry Kentucky. Happy endings all around, if you don’t look too closely.
It is at this point we should take not of exactly who her costar is in this film—Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays Gil. He was also Crawford’s first husband, and their wedding had been leveraged as a promotional gimmick for Our Modern Maidens. Crawford’s romance with Fairbanks seems to have had some of the same degree of calculation behind it as Billie’s plans. The Fairbanks family was Hollywood royalty, and by marrying into the house of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Crawford was ensuring her own status.
I don’t mean to be cynical here, or to suggest that Crawford and Fairbanks didn’t share something real between them. But let’s be honest—marrying into Pickfair was just about the best career move Crawford could have come up with, and she didn’t stay married to Junior for terribly long.
Joan Crawford engineered a star-making role for herself, and then used that stardom to make a film about a woman who engineers her own social success—and it is played without irony or opprobrium.
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